Wayétu Moore tells the story of Liberia through her family's escape from its devastating civil war
In 1989, when Wayétu Moore was four years old, civil war broke out in Liberia. Soon after, her family fled their hometown and, after three gruelling weeks on the road, went into hiding. Eventually they escaped to the United States where they settled in suburban Houston.
In her new memoir, The Dragons, The Giant, The Women, Moore chronicles this harrowing journey and explores its repercussions — on her birth country, her family, and in her own life. Focusing on her close bond with her father — the "giant" of the book's title — she describes the stories he told her and her sisters, to protect them from the atrocities they were witnessing.
Moore's previous work, She Would Be King, also draws on Liberia's rich tradition of storytelling, which often features fantastical elements. The widely praised novel centres on three characters, each of whom has a superpower. She Would Be King appeared on many best of the year lists in 2018.
Moore is a recipient of the Lannan Literary Fellowship for Fiction, and is the founder of One Moore Book, a publisher of culturally relevant stories for children. She spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from her home in New York City.
Understanding Liberia's history
"The way that Liberian identity has been presented in the past has been flawed. It is very much presented in the binary that there is this rife tension between two groups and these two groups were at war and that's what led to the civil war. These things just aren't true. There are 15 ethnic groups in Liberia. Many of them had a history of conflict with each other and those were being resolved during this war, simultaneously with whatever was going on with the settler population. One of the things that I've always wanted to do in my work was present Liberian identity in its complexity, that there are many people who have both settler ancestry and also indigenous ancestry.
Sometimes the history that we accept as truth needs the layers to be peeled back to where we find the grey area.
"I was raised to value Liberia as a nation. I never felt an alienation or an isolation from either my mother or my father's primary cultures or primary identities. I was conscious of the complexity of Liberian culture and conscious of our history. It's been interesting to dig into that history. I was going up country and having conversations with some of the oldest Liberians in my family and other people's families. My grandmother is 95. She has brothers who are in their hundreds. It was so fulfilling because you realize that sometimes the history that we accept as truth needs the layers to be peeled back to where we find the grey area. I think most of contemporary African history exists in that grey area."
Escaping the Liberian civil war
"It was pure chaos. It was a fight for power. And that's primarily what the 'dragons' in the title represent, a man's search and hunger for power at all costs.
"When my mom returned, she went to Sierra Leone. She met a man who told her about a network of women who essentially were trafficking people's families out of the country. He was able to reach out to some of his networks, find such a woman. The woman's name was Satta. She was a teenager at the time. She was able to go to the village where we were hiding and traffic us across the border, from Liberia into Sierra Leone.
That's primarily what the 'dragons' in the title represent, a man's search and hunger for power at all costs.
"In order to have been trafficked, you did have to have the money to pay these women. I also consider and know that there are probably families who suffered at her hand. And a huge part of my reconciliation, of my story, my research around the topics and abstractions of this book, had a lot to do with my understanding of this concept of goodness. What makes a person good? What makes a person a hero? Because in many ways, Satta is one of the heroes of our story. But she is certainly a villain in other stories and for other families who experienced the war."
Telling stories to understand the horror
"I was curious enough as a child to know that something was wrong because there was chaos all around us, even though my dad tried to maintain somewhat of a bubble of safety and security around us, by telling us stories. But I knew that something was wrong.
"Something that's important to mention is the idea that we had been told stories our entire lives that included some aspect of magic and fantasy. That was just the norm — someone shapeshifting, disappearances, spells. That was just part my understanding of a story's architecture; that it included the fantastic. On top of that, my parents are fundamentalist Christians. So I was also told stories about the entire world being ruined by a flood and all of the animals fitting into a boat, and a whale swallowing a man and the man having to stay in the whale.
This is the way that I saw the world from a very young age: one that was always abnormal, always reaching for the extraordinary.
"This is the way that I saw the world from a very young age: one that was always abnormal, always reaching for the extraordinary. It was not as bewildering as it would seem that there were dragons somewhere in the distance, fighting. It was the first time that I imagined those dragons to be as big as they were, because we knew that there were Komodo dragons and other dragons that were in the woods and in the forests of Liberia.
"But I believed it. I believed it, because why wouldn't I?"
Growing up Black in the southern U.S.
"When you're in the South, there is this normalized hierarchy based on skin tone, based on colour. It was normal for me to see Confederate flags as bumper stickers on people's trucks, even though it has such a sinister and dark history for America. It was normal for me to hear disparaging things about Black people, but it was always said jokingly in school, usually by classmates. I came to understand that, no, these are not siloed, individualized occurrences. This is something that exists within the very fabric of this new home.
It was normal for me to see Confederate flags as bumper stickers on people's trucks, even though it has such a sinister and dark history for America.
"I would say I didn't come to a full understanding and a full agreement with the depth of racism in America until my late 20s. The reason for that is that, for many Black immigrants, when you move here, America is your Emerald City. It's the Emerald City of the world. You look at America as being a place of as much opportunity as the next person. You're not thinking, 'Oh, why might this not happen? Because I'm Black,' or 'I might have been passed over for this job because I'm Black.' You're not thinking that way. You're thinking about all that is possible because you have a new beginning. It's only in being here for a sustained period of time that you adopt the sensibilities, the understanding, and occasionally the rage of other Black people who are here, who stayed here, who've been here for centuries and have an intimate knowledge of this country and its systems that you do not."
Understanding her identity
"I think people are comfortable with placing other people in boxes and within categories that they understand. There is a discomfort when someone says, 'I'm a little bit of everything.' All of these experiences culminated into one being — that makes people uncomfortable. Because how can you judge a person or interact with a person when they're telling you that perhaps you haven't met someone like them or with their history before? There are instances and there have been times in my life where I have felt pressured to perhaps choose, more or less for the comfort of the individual who I was speaking to.
All of these experiences culminated into one being — that makes people uncomfortable.
"I'm a Black woman in America and my sensibilities are very much linked to that identity, whatever it means being a woman, of being someone with Black skin and all of their detailed consequences.
Wayétu Moore's comments have been edited for length and clarity.